Like it or not: everything is politics

The political media comes under constant criticism for focussing on the internal workings and intrigues of governments. But we must analyse the politics of an event to properly understand it.

Ever since American journalism academic Jay Rosen talked to the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011 about how impoverished our political media is, because of its seeming obsession with the internal workings and intrigues of governments and political parties, the same criticism has been levelled at Australian political journalists and writers who seek to explain the mechanics and mysteries of politics.

The articles of contention describe the judgments and tradeoffs made by political players to maintain the tenuous balance between sound policy or doing what is morally right and what will win or maintain votes at the next election.

The most common criticism of such posts is that they focus on how things “are” instead of how they “should be”. My Drum column last week on the politics of Ebola, and others published elsewhere about how the budget is being sold to voters or various political figures are positioning themselves for future leadership contests, are amongst those criticised in this way.

There was particular consternation about my contention that the Government’s response to the growing Ebola crisis in West Africa was shaped by politics, as was the Opposition’s approach. Commenters on The Drum and Twitter complained the column should have focused on what the Government “should” be doing about Ebola, instead of explaining why it was not.

Such criticism misses the point entirely: like it or not, everything in politics is politics. There’s no way to take politics out of Australia’s democratic institutions and processes, be they parties, elections or parliament. While democracy continues to rely on “the people” to exercise their vote, and human behaviour remains in the mix, there will always be politics (which by definition is the theory and practice of influencing people).

Public opinion looms large when it comes to politics: if a party can’t win the hearts and minds of voters then they won’t get elected. It’s that simple. And it’s virtually impossible to implement one’s policy agenda from the opposition benches.

So it’s a difficult proposition for an opposition to willingly diminish its electability or a government to risk its incumbency by advocating a course of action that is not supported by the majority of voters – even if that action is the right way to go in a policy or moral sense.

This is why former prime minister Kevin Rudd backed away from his emissions trading scheme in the face of growing voter antipathy for carbon pricing, and his successor Julia Gillard similarly ruled out a carbon tax. Neither wanted to sacrifice their governments’ future prospects for one, albeit critically important, matter when their reform agendas encompassed so many other important things that also needed to be done.

It could be argued that, even though Gillard was subsequently forced to renege on her “no carbon tax” commitment, she may not have been elected without having made it and then would not have been able to follow through on many of the important reforms started by the Rudd government such as the NBN, Gonski and NDIS.

Such are the swings and roundabouts of politics.

There is an alternative to conceding to popular opinion, and that is to change it, but this is akin to doing a u-turn in a cruise ship.

Getting the voting public to change its mind, not on superficial matters, but on those that tap into core values and concerns, is a slow and laborious task that can take longer than one three or four-year parliamentary term to produce results. Doing so is hard enough for a government, even with the authority that comes from being in power and having a phalanx of departments and battalions of advisers at its disposal.

One illustrative example is former PM John Howard’s attempt to change voters’ views about the GST leading up to the 1998 federal election. While he did manage to do so slightly, Howard also lost almost 5 per cent of the vote at that election.

Gillard tried similarly with the Clean Energy Future Package in 2011, which included the carbon tax and associated compensation measures, but to little effect. Three years on from the launch of that package, only 38 per cent of voters support having a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme to manage climate change.

Changing popular opinion is even more difficult to do from opposition. Liberal opposition leader John Hewson failed spectacularly to bring voters on board with his comprehensive Fightback policy manifesto in 1993. More successful (at least from the Liberals’ perspective) was opposition leader Tony Abbott’s campaign, which turned community sentiment against the carbon tax, but still took four years spanning two parliamentary terms to come to do so.

It was politics that thwarted Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Hewson, and it was politics that helped Abbott prevail. Without understanding the politics of each event, we have a limited understanding of how each leader failed or succeeded in shaping public opinion to their political or policy ends.

So to dismiss the political dimension of any civic event as somehow unworthy of consideration because it’s not as things “should” be, is to diminish one’s own capacity to fully understand that event.

That may be an acceptable stance for the ignorant and blinkered, but it does nothing for those who wish to fully and productively exercise their democratic rights.